How to Help Others Feel Safe in Spiritual Spaces 

Whether it’s my children, my spouse, or those in my online and in-person communities, this work continues to pave a road into the otherwise guarded parts of their hearts and souls.

Although my face expressed shock, internally I wasn’t at all surprised as I listened to a fellow foster mama sharing a story about a new baby in her care. 

As foster parents do, soon after placement she was in appointments to complete wellness checks and developmental screenings. She explained that the results showed the baby had significant developmental delays, more than she anticipated. When she noticed that the evaluator was male, and knew that part of her baby’s trauma history included abuse from a man, she requested the screening to be done a second time, with a female evaluator and her present in the room. 

Suddenly the baby was far more responsive, deriving very different results. The evaluators were surprised to see such a discrepancy. Instead of leaving with a list of potential concerns and therapeutic needs to attend to, this foster mama and baby left with a validated awareness of how significant psychologically felt safety is.  

From the time we’re infants to the moment we post our first angry comment online, our sense of safety plays a huge role in how we interact with the world at large. And that’s especially true in spiritual spaces.

Your Brain and Safety 

Have you ever gone rock climbing? You watch your harness gear get clipped in place and know there is a trained and trustworthy person holding the rope. But you still end up frozen because the experience doesn’t feel safe. 

The human brain is wired to protect itself from any level of perceived threat. New information and experiences are measured against the meaning derived from previous information and experiences. For example, a familiar scent bringing memories of a harmful person could signal a threat and activate the brain’s fight, flight, and freeze responses. 

When the brain is in survival mode, it can’t access the area of the brain that makes meaning of new experiences or ideas. 

A safe-feeling brain allows a person to become present in the moment, welcoming connection with others and healthy interdependence in relationships. Here there is room for honest processing of pain, fears, and hopes. Individuals are comfortable asking questions, contributing ideas, and taking risks without concern of shame or rejection. Rather, vulnerability is permitted allowing for open-hearted connection and learning to occur without the hindrance of self-protection. 

When I consider how God created our brains in light of our spiritual formation, I can quickly understand how connected the experience of psychological felt safety is to one’s spiritual growth. It’s often when hearts are safely connected to others that learning, change, and growth can occur for everyone. 

Without Safety 

For many, fellowship groups and communities are a context for spiritual growth, but the presence or lack of felt safety within these communities is directly correlated to the spiritual formation process. 

Unfortunately, I’ve observed groups hold unspoken rules of engagement that decrease the felt safety of those involved. When the perspectives of those with more experience in the faith are given greater distinction, it can generate insecurity and shame for others. Rote spiritual vernacular offers simple answers to complex situations, which then generates hesitation to share. An attempt to find a silver lining when tragedy occurs can minimize pain. 

Without a psychologically safe space, it’s difficult for new insights to be embodied into a place of transformation. Instead, the self-protective mechanisms in our brain lead us to an isolated experience of internal conflict, which pauses or negatively impacts our spiritual formation. 

Honestly, it wasn’t until I experienced it myself that I was able to understand the value of what had been missing before. 

Faith in Practice 

The global pandemic and quarantine restrictions of 2020 brought more unknowns than familiarity. “Closed until further notice” signs were up, and opportunities for human connection were down. Thankfully, I was part of a community of women who shared a desire to stick together through those days of uncertainty. While the world was taking sides, we tried listening to each other’s experiences, which invited us into an important shared space.  

Within our group were healthcare professionals. We listened attentively and grieved as our ICU nurse described the overwhelming scenes of caring for intubated patients, using her phone to repeatedly facilitate Facetime goodbyes between the isolated dying and their loved ones. We held the tension and made room for each other’s anger as ideological wars continued within church spaces. 

Racialized violence was regularly making headlines. In particular, the devastating Atlanta spa shooting of 2021 hit close to home. The majority of our group are Asian American women, who courageously and graciously allowed me, a White woman, to witness their honest and raw response, while they also extended an invitation to hold their personal stories of fear, pain, and injustice. Together, we vocalized our lament.  

Quarantine restrictions impacted my home as new guidelines for court-ordered family visits were implemented. In our case, this meant our toddler went from not seeing his mom in a year, to spending up to twelve hours a week on Facetime with her. This new dynamic surfaced the full range of complex feelings for each of us. I found myself so weighed down in my efforts to hold it all for my confused and disoriented little one. But my sisters opened their arms and offered to hold me. 

New Muscle Mass 

Each bucket of messy processing dumped into the collective one was a unique set of hardship, disorientation, and wrestling with faith. By carrying it together, we all gained new muscle mass we didn’t have before. This walk required more leaning in to listen, a lot of emoting, and extra resting stops. 

Our empathy and attunement to one another grew. Our capacity to receive and validate one another’s shared experience without offering assessment or solutions developed. This walk taught us the gifts of co-regulation, mutuality, and interdependence. As we welcomed each other’s perspectives and processes, it helped us to make sense of our own. 

Through this community, I experienced God in deeply formative ways. The role of lament and the experience of collective grief has led me to a greater love of my neighbor, an increased awareness of the systemic injustice in our world, and the familiarity of offering meaningful solidarity to others. 

Becoming acquainted with complex issues leaving me in tension has sharpened my skills to walk alongside people, instead of leaving people to take a side. Embracing my limited humanity has led to dependence on God, as well as the freedom to receive grace from others instead of striving to self-manage. 

God cares about our safety, too. 

I have found that offering psychological felt safety can only open doors in my interactions with others. Whether it’s my children, my spouse, or those in my online and in-person communities, this work continues to pave a road into the otherwise guarded parts of their hearts and souls. As this developed awareness takes front and center, I have begun to appreciate the way it’s modeled in the Psalms as well. 

Repeatedly throughout this book, the authors express an encounter not with both physical safety and psychological felt safety.  

Psalm 71:3 says, “Be my rock of safety where I can always hide” (NLT). 

Psalm 31:7 says, “I will be glad and rejoice in your unfailing love, for you have seen my troubles, and you care about the anguish of my soul” (NLT).  

Psalm 40:2 says, “He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along” (NLT).  

Psalm 18:2 says, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety” (NLT). 

Vulnerability is welcomed and seen by God in these passages. The very emotional and psychological anguish of the author’s soul has been named. And the constant tender response received is to be set on solid ground, steadied in the walk onward. I love the picture of God as our shield connected to the power that saves us, because indeed providing safety for someone else is powerful. 

Can you imagine the gift it would be to offer this kind of space for those who enter your orbit, even if it’s briefly in the comment section on someone else’s post? I believe there is a powerful understanding to be unwrapped, which can lead us all to greater freedom and flourishing.

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